Under the willow tree, p.1
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       Under the Willow Tree, p.1
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           Michael Corso
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Under the Willow Tree
UNDER THE WILLOW TREE

  BY

  MICHAEL CORSO

  OTHER WORK BY MICHAEL CORSO

  SHORT STORIES

  The Age of Earth and Water

  A Rift in Time’s Regard

  Below the Surface

  BOOKS

  The Fear Within

  The Adventures of James Squirrel

  Copyright © 2016 by Michael Corso

  Source material for cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

  This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This book may not be re-sold or given away to others. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

  If you would like to contact Michael, please write him on Twitter @7MichaelCorso or on his blog, www.MichaeloftheBooks.wordpress.com

  TABLE OF CONTENTS

  Other Work by Michael Corso

  Beginning

  Middle

  End

  About the Author

  Light played on the two children’s faces, dancing around in flickering patterns of shade and sun as the cool autumn breeze shifted the leaves above.

  The girl lay facing the sky beneath the flowing branches of the willow tree, her sandy-blonde hair getting caught in the wind. Hands crossed over her stomach, she would only move one of them to brush the hair from her eyes and then stare back at the light show above her. A dreamlike smile lit her face.

  The boy lay next to her. His earth-tone hair blew across his face as he turned from the swaying braches above. His eyes locked onto the girl, staying there for some time. He smiled. She always made him smile, even if for no reason at all.

  “What’re you thinking about, Jessie?” asked the boy.

  “I’m not thinking about anything,” Jessie said, her peaceful expression fading slightly. “Just how much I’m going to miss this place.”

  “What?” The boy sat up, pushing back his tweed newsboy cap and propping himself on one elbow. “Miss this place? Where are you going?”

  Jessie took a deep breath, looking away. “My mother…she got a new job in Chicago. A promotion. We’re moving at the end of the month.”

  “That’s just two weeks away.” The boy appeared lost in thought, far from the real world that suddenly seemed a little less beautiful.

  “Yeah, I know,” Jessie replied, reaching up and placing the palm of her soft hand on his cheek. The boy fought back the compulsion to cry.

  “Isn’t there something you can do? You can’t try and talk her out of it?”

  “I already tried,” Jessie said glumly. “We had a bit of a fight really. That’s why I asked you to come here. I wanted to have something nice to remember about this day, Matt.”

  Jessie sat up, exactly level with Matt, and leaned in, giving him a quiet kiss on the cheek. “Now, I do,” she whispered into his ear. When she leaned back, Jessie’s eyes sparkled, catching the sunlight. “Promise me one thing,” she said softly, her voice mixing with the sound of the breeze.

  “What?” Matt could not look away.

  “That you’ll still come here after I’m gone, and think about me. This is our place. Don’t ever give it up.”

  Matt’s voice wavered. “I promise,” he forced out.

  “Good.”

  Jessie resumed her restful position upon the bed of grass and held out her hand. Matt followed suit, reclining on the soft earth as he took Jessie’s hand in his.

  They stayed there for the longest time, just listening to the birds and the musical tones of the wind in the willow. But just as time began to seem like it didn’t exist, the perfect moment was interrupted.

  “It doesn’t have to be that way, you know,” said a voice, rough and hoarse.

  Both children bolted up in a flash. Off to the left, there sat and old homeless man perched against an oak tree. Dirt and filth covered his tattered clothes to the point where his wardrobe was indistinguishable from the tree bark he leaned against. His leathery skin was worn and tan. Disheveled hair hung in tangled masses from his capped head.

  “What?” Matt responded to the intrusive man.

  “Yes,” the old man said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”

  “What doesn’t have to be what way?”

  “Why, the girl going off to distant places, and you left here to always wonder what life could have been if she stayed. You could be together. Do you think you two are the first lovers to come beneath the boughs of the willow tree and dream about the possibilities?”

  “Okay, sir. I’m sorry, but we are going to have to leave now.” Jessie stood up, helping Matt to his feet as well. This was not the first time they had met unsavory characters in Central Park. As they stood, they prepared to run away if he tried to advance.

  Shifting their gaze from the old man for a moment, he was gone when they looked back. He had disappeared into thin air. There wasn’t even an indention on the grass where he had lain. Then they heard the man’s voice on the winds. “This is no ordinary place.” The wind gusted and swirled around the two. Jessie grabbed Matt’s hand hard until she almost cut off circulation. “For two who are in love, they must stand beneath the willow tree, ready to leave everything else behind, and you will find a place only a few have ever seen.”

  The man appeared right next to them. “It is a place of wonders!”

  Matt and Jessie jumped, hearts pounding.

  “Are you crazy?!” Jessie yelled.

  “Is true love crazy?” the old man asked. “If you honestly want to be together, you need only stand beneath the willow tree and profess each other your love. But, it will only work if you are willing to leave everything else behind, because if there is even one doubt in your heart, the magic will not work. Only a few have ever seen it.”

  “Oh, yeah? Have you seen it? The way you talk, you’d think you lived there,” Matt teased.

  The man stared, his eyes transforming into empty wells. “I have seen it. Once I too stood beneath the willow tree with my true love.” The old man’s brown eyes landed on Jessie. She looked away from them. “We both had hard lives. I will not tell my gruesome story to children. It is not right for you to hear so young. Yes. We had hard lives until we found each other. She made my world perfect even when it wasn’t. One day we came out here beneath the willow tree, and an old lady told us the secret. We professed our love right there on the spot.

  “That was when I saw it. The most beautiful place you’ve ever seen. Everything was living and bright, the air smelled like sweet flowers in springtime, warm sunlight rained out upon me, and I saw a golden city in the distance. But suddenly I became frightened, and I doubted myself. It was in that last moment when I let go of Julia’s hand. The doorway shut, and I was left alone under the willow tree. I never saw Julia again.”

  A single tear shined in the corner of the old man’s eye. “I knew I would never love another the way I loved Julia. So I would never get a chance to see that place again. That’s when I devoted my life to helping others in love discover the secret of the willow tree, and why I have remained homeless all these years in the hope of finding a pair not so foolish as I was.”

  The children were speechless. The man fixated on them, silently watching as they took in everything they’d been told.

  What a ridiculous story!

  It couldn’t be true. Those kinds of things just didn’t happen. It was like fairy tale stuff, listening to this madman rant about a golden city and a land so beautiful you could barely describe it.

  “You really expect us to believe that?” Matt asked indignant
ly.

  The old man smiled, standing up quite erect for someone of his poor health and derelict appearance. “Of course you can’t believe everything you hear.” Then he leaned in close, causing them to stumble backwards. “But do you believe everything you see?”

  The rustling sound of leaves broke the awkward moment, and the man backed away to the boundary of hanging branches. A strange whistling blew in on the wind, carrying a collection of autumn leaves. The willow branches swayed around the old man. Wind blew the leaves up like a wave. Then abruptly the breeze passed, and the mysterious man was nowhere to be seen.

  Breath caught in their throats. Where’d he go? A few moments passed before they worked up the nerve to investigate the spot where the old man disappeared. After several minutes looking for him, they never found a single trace. They even searched the ground for footprints. There were none. The duo asked a few other people around the park who they saw quite often in their regular trips to the willow tree. None had ever seen the man they described.

  Feeling strangely perplexed about the entire afternoon, they simply decided to go back home. Walking along Central Park West, they both agreed to tell no one about what had happened in the park. Who would believe them anyway?

  The two weeks leading up to Jessie’s move passed extraordinarily fast. The couple spent every possible minute together, even playing hooky from classes to be with each other an extra hour here and there. They were completely inseparable. After all, it wouldn’t be long until Jessie was gone.

  It was the day before the move, and Matt had reluctantly been helping Jessie pack all week long. While boxing up the last remnants of Jessie’s bedroom things, their eyes met.

  “Stay at my house tonight,” Matt pleaded.

  She pondered for a moment, thought absorbing her for so long tension began to cloud the empty room.

  “No,” she finally responded.

  “Why not?” Matt replied, bewildered.

  Jessie looked away. “I don’t want us to…get any closer.”

  Matt was horrified. “You don’t want me to get close to you?”

  “Urgh! No, that’s not it.” She paused, looking up at the ceiling. “I don’t want to miss you any more than I already will.”

  Matt grasped her hand. “Jess. I’ll miss you too, but getting closer isn’t wrong. I want to spend as much time with you while I can. Who knows when we’ll ever see each other again?”

  “I know,” she replied. “I just never expected to feel this way. I thought I was stronger.”

  A single tear rolled down Jessie’s cheek. Before it had a chance to fall, Matt wiped it away. “You are strong. You’re the strongest girl I know. It wasn’t some other girl who helped me win all our playground fights in elementary school.”

  Jessie laughed. Matt continued. “It wasn’t any other girl who always beat me in brain games and out ran me in Phys. Ed.” Then he looked straight into her eyes, getting as close to her as possible. “It wasn’t some other girl who let me fall apart while you stayed strong after my dad died. You are the strongest person I’ve ever met, and you’re only fourteen.”

  Jessie scooted in close and wrapped her arms around Matt’s chest.

  “If you don’t want to spend the night,” Matt said, “I understand. You don’t have to explain anymore. But if you really love me, come meet me at the willow tree tonight at midnight.”

  “Sneak out the night before Mom and I move? Are you crazy?”

  “I’m crazy about you,” Matt said, smiling, adventure in his eyes.

  “I don’t know. All the talk from that old man…kinda freaked me out. We haven’t been back there since that day.”

  “I know, but this will be our last chance to be together in our favorite spot. We’ve been going there for years and never seen that old guy before. He was probably just some homeless creep who likes to harass people. Besides, he was obviously lying.”

  “I guess,” Jessie replied with a smirk.

  “So, will you come?”

  “Maybe. No promises,” Jessie eyed Matt sharply.

  Matt grinned. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

  The moon and starlight shone down on the treetops and grassy expanses of Central Park as the glossy leaves glistened with ethereal light. Matt’s two year old sneakers compressed the soft grass beneath his feet as he walked toward the willow tree. Its branches swayed in a welcoming, luring manner. In the scheme of night, the tree took on a whole different aura. For some reason, Matt could swear he felt a wave of something, a warm energy, coming from its boughs.

  Pushing aside his awkward feelings, he strode up to the trunk and sat down against its soothing, cool base. He checked his wristwatch…12:05. Matt smiled and looked out into the heavenly illuminated night as he waited.

  Minutes ticked by. Matt still smiled expectantly, scanning the area in all directions for any sign of Jessie.

  An hour passed and Matt began to let his mind wander, thinking about otherworldly and magical things. Could the old man be right? Could we go to a place made only for those who are in love? A place where we would be free of everything.

  The mystery of the idea reminded Matt of why he was there, and he resumed his eager anticipation.

  Two hours passed and Matt’s expectancy began to grow heavy with foreboding. The idea of Jessie actually not coming crept into his mind. He slumped against the tree trunk, his head swimming with the innumerable reasons why Jessie would not come and the dread of never seeing her again.

  Three hours passed and Matt began to cry, his tears silently rolling off his chin in rhythmic drops, wetting the soil beneath him. His mind was blank and his body numb, the truth now finally sinking in about what would happen later that day.

  It was four o’clock when Matt’s eyelids began to get dreadfully heavy. The nocturnal world threatened to close in around him like a blanket of darkness.

  At four-thirty-five Matt was curled upon the ground with his head resting on the dirt, scarcely even conscious. He had already worn himself out from crying. The whole night had become too much for him. With his mind exhausted, there was only one thing which continued to permeate his thoughts…his feelings for Jessie.

  As the waking world left him, and he welcomingly embraced unconsciousness, he whispered one thing into the quiet night.

  “Jessie, I love you.”

  Then he slipped away into dreams.

  As he did so, he dreamt of strange things…a golden light and the smell of flowers on a warm breeze. He felt the rays of sun upon his side. If he were awake he could have sworn it was a perfectly cloudless morning. Sweet music filled the air, and the trickling sound of water bubbling across a pebble-lined stream drifted across the ground.

  He slept and slept. For how long he slumbered no one will ever know, but when he awoke he was lying on a field of silver grass, and when he lifted up his eyes, he saw in the distance, a golden city sitting upon a hill.

  Just then he heard something from behind him. He turned around to see a split in the shining landscape, like a doorway to another world.

  The next morning Jessie woke up to a near empty apartment. Her mother made pancakes, and she ate on the floor off a throwaway plate, the whole time looking out the window, waiting for Matt to come strolling up the street. After two hours, Jessie succumbed to the fact that Matt did not want to say goodbye. Everything was packed in the van, and there was nothing left to do but leave. She stood outside looking down the road, knowing Matt’s apartment was only four blocks over, but she turned and got into the passenger’s seat instead.

  This was the best thing…a clean break.

  But as her mother drove the van away from her old life, she wondered if not going to the park last night was the right decision. It hurt to think of Matt sitting all alone in the night waiting for someone who wouldn’t come. But she couldn’t accept getting closer to Matt, only to be separated in the end.

  It was a long driv
e to her new home. It was even longer before she ever came back.

 
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